February 15, 2013 · Print This Article
By the time I got there, it was standing room only. Everyone crowded around two small tables under minimal but nevertheless theatrical light. We stood this way, waiting for Korean sound muscians Hong Chulki and Choi Joonyong to play their experimental music sets. We stood in the converted ball room of a once-great mansion in Old Town. Of course the mansion is still grand, but instead of providing residence to humans it is the home base for The Graham Foundation — an organization that dates back to 1956. Dedicated to the architecture and its role in the arts, culture, and society, The Graham Foundation offers “project-based grants to individuals and organizations” while producing public programs. I had come to see one of LAMPO’s productions — one of many in an on-going experimental sound series; in order to access the ballroom, however, I had to pass through a stunning exhibit of Soviet Modernist Architecture installed in the rest of the mansion’s first and second floors. The buildings in this series are so strong and immovable in their position against the sky — and would prove to be an excellent foil to the immaterial, unfolding sequence provided by Chulki and Joonyong.
Choi Joonyong and Hong Chulki have been pioneers in Soel’s emerging experimental music scene for the last 15 years. Choi Joonyong started Astronoise — South Korea’s first noise group — with Hong Chulki in 1997. Later in 2000, the pair co-founded an experimental record label, “Balloons and Needles;” they have released a number of records since . Together, this collaborative duo embody a nexus being both community advocates and practitioners who have been called “acoustic explorers” in a “Bermuda Triangle of Sound,” creating “non-conformist, post military service” music.
They sat on either side of two respective tables. Chulki played a record player without a cartidge, running different materials along the player’s sides from what I could see — a legal-sized piece of what looked like metal, for instance — in order to create a small variant whine. Meanwhile, Joonyong used portable music players in unconventional ways — he set up two or three open Discmen and placed small pieces of tape on the spinning, exposed discs. These small tape pieces clicked against one another intermittetnly, until one finally spun off, returning the room to soft discmen whirs. At such times, Chulki’s record player manipulations would emerge as the focal point, underscoring the way these two composers wove a sonic tapestry between them, organically alternating which devices were more prominent. Chulki and Joonyong made use of one another while engaging the spatial acoustics of a given room. Chulki never got up from his seat; he remained like the grounding line or backbone throughout both sets while constantly modifying the sounds he created. Joonyong on the other hand regularly stood up from his seat to relocate sound makers in other parts of the room. It was as though he was building a low-fi surround-sound system. He set up four exposed Discmen with bits of tape on them in the four corners of the room. He unwrapped a spool of tin foil while walking around the perimeter of the room as well, fixing the ends of the foil to speakers with tape. In another instance he pushed amplifiers on wheels down one side of the room, then opened a door and placed the amp on the other side of that door, or rolled a second amp, as it sputtered mechanic drones, down a flight of stairs. Each and every sound — the sound of tape unwinding, foil unwrapping, the sound of footsteps, the gutteral amplifiers, the whine of Chulki’s ongoing centrally located soundscape — heightened my awareness of the room. Although we were all in the same room, the strangely muted affect of this improvised composition created the illusion of distance and depth. Chulki’s manipulations reminded me of a distant construction site (the whizzing of concrete getting sliced by an electronic, saw) heard through the window of a sky scraper. Joonyong’s flicking bits of tape stuck to the portable CD players clicked against the strips of foil he had laid out, conjuring for me a a nearer sound like that of a half-broken fan. I began to get an acoustic map of a space that did not physically exist but was conjured by their audio web. Its delicate detail heightened by the overall nonchalance of the performers themselves. Chulki took out three electronic hand massage devices and first set them up on his table, until one pushed a Discman onto the floor before falling to the ground itself. He then walked these small, plastic vibrators around the room, tucking one in the space between an inner and outer window, or behind a door. These vibrations, muffled though they were, emanated into the main space, adding another layer of depth. I found a video of this moment, and the friend who posted it referred lovingly to the duo as “The Bas Jan Ader of Korean experimental music,” what likely sums up the embrace of failure, or in this case the pratfall of an electric masseur.